Over half a million Indochinese refugees have flocked to the United States in the wake of South Vietnam's collapse. For none of these refugees was the flight from their homeland an easy one, but for one group-Hmong people- the uprooting has been especially traumatic.
Tribal peasants from the highlands of northern Laos, the Hmong were catapulted from a centuries-old slash-and-burn farming culture into the computer age. They were totally unfamiliar with modern urban life, even in their own country. Not only stoves and refrigerators but tables and chairs were foreign. Banks, checking accounts, and supermarkets defied even the imagination in their native home. And they were illiterate-in fact, their own language doesn't have a written form.
When I was asked recently by a United Nations organization to chart the Hmong's problems and prospects in Southern California, where over 33 percent of the 50,000 Hmong in the United States have settled, I found a people struggling to adapt to monumental changes in their lives. But my investigation also revealed something deeply troubling about America's welfare system.
Like millions of immigrants who had preceded them to the United States, the Hmong were greeted by generous volunteers-individuals and charitable organizations-who helped ease them into their new surroundings. Unlike past eras, however, the federal government now has its fingers in just about every dimension of America's melting pot. There are programs to impart to immigrants language and job skills. There are taxpayer-funded housing subsidies, health-support systems, special counseling, and welfare.
It all sounds quite generous, at first. But, talking to the director of the Indochinese Community Program in my area (yes, it's federally funded), I noticed how much support for the Hmong has gone toward guiding them through a maze of government bureaucracy. Immigration papers, Social Security numbers, tax forms, Medicare forms, welfare applications, immunizations-all this, the program director proudly confided, her office takes care of for the refugees.
Had any of the Hmong in this area, I asked, set up businesses? A bemused director replied that these people can barely cope with the basic procedural requirements of settling down in machine-age America. Surely, she said, not realizing her implicit criticism of what America had become, they could not contemplate throwing themselves against the morass of agencies, councils, commissions, boards, and departments that regulate small business.
Contrast this to the situation in turn-of-the-century New York, where government interference didn't nip entrepreneurship in the bud. The waves of immigrants that poured in then have left a rich diversity of shops, restaurants, and services that bear witness to what unrestricted opportunity can mean for individuals.
Today we have, instead, refugees who are increasingly pushed on to the mercy of government welfare programs, as private efforts are crowded out and entrepreneurship is stymied. And what the government gives with one hand, it is often quick to take away with the other. Whether a tribute to the hardworking refugees themselves, or to the vigorous efforts of the Indochinese Community Program's directors, 75 percent or more of the Hmong in this area have found work. Ironically, that very success seems likely to engender the demise of the program-since its welfare rolls are slim, the program is slated to receive no more funding.
In the same building out of which the Indochinese Program operates, I saw healthy, able-bodied American adults lined up for their regular welfare handouts. Some, the director complained, have been receiving welfare checks for a decade or more. Meanwhile she could point to a Hmong tribesman-illiterate, speaking no English, with 10 children and almost no belongings, in utterly strange surroundings-who is ineligible for continued assistance because of legal quirks and political finagling.
The program director seemed genuinely concerned, and I asked whether she'd reached out to the community for help. Yes, she said. She had presented a plea for funds to the city council, to county officials, to the mayor, to the local congressman, to the state senator-all government officials! I probed further. What about individuals? Philanthropic volunteers? I was astounded, but it had not even occurred to her to seek help from the private sector.
Historically, the United States was a land of opportunity for immigrants. It offered them relative freedom to pursue their dreams. And, with flourishing voluntary, charitable organizations, it provided a flexible support network for the needy. Today, we have a situation in which eager, hardworking individuals, hindered from setting out on their own, become captives of a welfare system that is unreliable yet breeds dependence. And, in a self-perpetuating process, the social workers who administer the system have been inculcated, more often than not in government schools, in the creed that governments, not individuals, solve problems. Slowly but surely this creed has penetrated our ranks, narrowing our vision and capping our imagination, so that a call for help is unquestioningly put out as a call for more government. What an introduction for the Hmong!
Lynn Scarlett is Reason's book review editor. She is in the doctoral program in political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.